Gang enforcers add deportation orders to arsenal of deterrents
By John Ellis
The McClatchy Newspapers, August 30, 2008
Fresno, CA — In California, Central San Joaquin Valley gang enforcers are using a new weapon: deportation orders.
Officials say the tactic already is a success. Nearly three dozen gang members who were in the U.S. illegally have been sent back to their home countries since the program's first arrests in February.
But the approach has risks – especially in small farm towns where predominantly Hispanic populations are wary of federal immigration authorities.
One example is Huron, Calif., where federal agents have helped with a growing gang problem, said Huron Police Chief Frank Steenport.
But the mayor of the tiny southwestern Fresno County town, is still steamed about a July raid that included federal agents, which he learned about only after it was over.
Local authorities have welcomed help from federal immigration agents because they are equipped with a powerful weapon: the ability to deport gang members who are in the country illegally. Federal agents also can ensure that lawbreakers get federal prison time.
The idea started with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents stationed in Fresno, Calif., who offered to help police. It was part of Operation Community Shield, a program the agency launched three years ago in major metropolitan areas to target violent transnational street gangs – specifically Mara Salvatrucha 13, or MS-13, formed in Los Angeles by immigrants from El Salvador.
ICE agents can take someone into custody for immigration violations, said Brian Poulsen, the resident agent in charge of Fresno's Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.
'Most of these gang members have come into the U.S. illegally,' he said. 'They have already violated federal law. We don't need a criminal charge.'
In the past, Poulsen said, his office lacked the staff to help with gang raids. But as the agency focused more on homeland security, officials turned their attention to the street gangs that terrorize communities, he said.
Local agents have participated in gang enforcement operations in the towns of Sanger, Selma, Madera, Fresno and in Tulare County.
It started in the central San Joaquin Valley with the Feb. 13 arrest in Mendota of Brian Rivera, a member of MS-13. Federal agents tracked down Rivera based on information provided by a consortium of gang officers from local agencies. He has since been deported to his native El Salvador.
A week later, federal agents were in Selma, participating in a gang sweep with local police.
Now, six months later, both local and federal law enforcement officials say the strategy has been a success.
So far, 35 gang members in the country illegally have been deported from the Valley as part of the Operation Community Shield sweeps.
They have been sent to Mexico, Central America and Southeast Asian nations such as Laos. Often times, federal authorities say, ICE has agents in these countries who keep an eye on the gang members after their return to their native land.
Law enforcement officials say they expect some deported gang members to return. Already, two gang members deported from here have returned and been re-arrested.
But this time, they face a different outcome. Returning to the U.S. after being deported is a felony. A conviction can mean a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison, possibly in a distant state where the gang member is unlikely to have any ties with fellow inmates.
That, officials say, is another reason federal prosecutions are more effective than those by the state, which can send convicted gang members to a prison already housing fellow gang members.
But despite the success claimed by law enforcement officials, there is still unease about the enforcement strategy.
Huron Mayor Ramon Dominguez said he was unaware of his city's coordinated action with ICE agents until the following day. He criticized the sweep because he said it might ensnare hard-working people who aren't gang members. And those who were deported, he added, were denied their due process.
'If they're gang members, send them to jail and let the judge handle it,' Dominguez said.
But Steenport, the Huron police chief, said those arrested were known gang members who participated in criminal activities.
'These guys are crooks,' he said. 'They are illegals who have never worked in the fields. They've embraced the American criminal lifestyle.'
Selma police Chief Tom Whiteside agreed.
He said Selma has 'tried to use every resource that we can to be effective in dealing with our gang problems. We realized, as a community, we did not want gangs to get out of control like they have in other places.'
One challenge recognized early on, Whiteside said, was dealing with 'illegal alien gang' members. Many members of the Surenos, a Hispanic gang found primarily in Southern California that has been a problem in Selma, are in the country illegally, he said.
Whiteside looked to the Los Angeles area for assistance with Selma's Sureno gang members. Police agencies in places like Cerritos in turn touted the effectiveness of Operation Community Shield.
Selma has now conducted two sweeps. The first netted seven Surenos.
But Whiteside, like Steenport, is careful in his dealings with ICE because he knows about the potential for controversy.
'We're not going to become immigration agents. We're not after illegal aliens. We're going after criminal gang members.'
Poulsen, who oversees ICE's Fresno office, understands the concern.
Police officers need to establish a rapport and have cooperation from residents of their towns – even those who may be fearful of interacting with police because they are undocumented, he said.
But this, he said, is different. This is about fighting criminal gangs.
Said Poulsen: 'They don't do anybody any good.'